DVDs for toddlers poorly designed: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Thinking of buying your toddler an “educational” DVD for the holidays, or gifting one to a friend’s preschooler? If you’re buying them for educational value, you might want to reconsider.

A study published today shows that DVDs created specifically for very young children are so poorly designed that youngsters will probably derive very little benefit from watching them, the study team concludes.

Some of these infant and toddler DVDs “could potentially impede social and cognitive learning,” Dr. Sandra L. Calvert from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and colleagues warn in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

There has been an explosion of DVD products directed at children younger than age 3, despite little understanding of whether they fuel any kind of meaningful learning.

Recently, some children’s DVDs have come under criticism for language implying they were educational. After some of those criticisms, one producer, Baby Einstein - whose videos were among those reviewed by the research team - expanded a satisfaction guarantee refund.

Calvert and colleagues analyzed 59 DVDs designed for children younger than 3 years. Thirty-one had a live format, 7 were animated and 21 had a mixed format. The packaging typically included educational claims and nearly three-quarters of the DVD titles implied that the product was educational, they note.

In analyzing the DVDs, Calvert’s team focused on the formal production features used to present the content. They gave most of the DVDs a failing grade.

“Most of the videos,” Calvert told Reuters Health, “were rapidly paced, filled with lots of changes in time and place that will be quite difficult for infants and toddlers to understand.”

The DVDs often moved along at a quicker pace than programs designed for older children in kindergarten and grade-school, she and colleagues found.

The investigators expected the DVDs to be packed with singing and rhyming, which boost preschoolers’ ability to comprehend and provides the opportunity for them to rehear and rehearse content, making it more memorable. However, they found that a third of the videos had no singing and more than half contained no rhyming.

Similarly, toddler-friendly camera zooms, which slowly move from a whole to a part and provide a focus for what a child should look at on the screen and assist in learning, were rare. Instead, camera cuts, which are difficult even for older children to understand, were common.

Narration and dialogue occurred only about a quarter of the time in the DVDs analyzed, and often it was an adult, not a child, doing the talking or narrating. Research has shown that preschoolers are more attentive to on screen children than adults, Calvert and colleagues note.

They also found it “striking” that objects, instead of people, were often the focus of the DVDs. “Because infants learn the intended behaviors of a person trying unsuccessfully to put an object together on a video but not the same exact behavior of a machine, the use of object action in the infant and toddler sample could potentially impede social and cognitive learning,” they charge.

It’s estimated that half of American kids younger than age 1 watch television or DVDs, despite a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children younger than 2 not have any “screen time.”

In a telephone interview with Reuters Health, Julie Clark, a mother and founder of Baby Einstein, said this study was “poorly designed.”

Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics stance against any screen time for toddlers, Clark said: “Babies and moms need some down time now and again. Personally, I don’t think there is harm in letting babies watch simple, age-appropriate programs once in a while.”

If parents decide to show videos to their very young child, Calvert advises that they look for educational content that has very few changes. “Key educational messages should be repeated, and the parent should watch with the child and interpret the content,” she said.

Nothing will ever replace the importance of a caring parent on children’s learning and development, be it through a real-life experience, an educational video, a book, or any other venue, she added.

“Put another way, videos, even if educational, are not an effective baby sitter,” Calvert said.

SOURCE: Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, December 2009.